From Obama to Black Lives Matter, everyone is talking about structural racism—something Trump’s supporters don’t want to own.
Despite the talk of “Make America Safe Again” at the Republican National Convention, the real message in Cleveland was that Obama is to blame for growing racial divisions that are weakening America.
Darryl Glenn, Republican candidate for Senate in Colorado, called Obama “the divider-in-chief” and said the country is “more racially divided today than before he ran.” House Speaker Paul Ryan castigated “the other party” for “always playing one group against the other as if group identity were everything.” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul alleged, “Obama and Hillary apologized for America and allowed jihadists to spread like wildfire.” Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions rebuked Obama for capitulating to lawlessness in not cracking down on undocumented immigration.
In accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump himself emphasized this theme: “The irresponsible rhetoric of our president, who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a more dangerous environment for everyone.”
The Obama era has changed how many Americans look at race.
These claims are dubious at best. But the Republican Party exists in an elaborate fantasy land ruled by group hatred and fear of the other. It wants to lay on Obama’s doorstep centuries of racism, as well as the deteriorating race relations of late. In effect, the right blames Obama for the results of its own racist arguments, which picked up steam in the 2008 election when they slammed him as a Muslim “palling around with terrorists.”
Nearly two presidential terms later, that’s still a popular opinion on the right. After he stepped down from the speakers’ platform at the RNC, former underwear model Antonio Sabàto, Jr., told ABC News that “we had a Muslim president for seven and half years.”
Although they’re confused about the details, Republicans are correct that the Obama era has changed how many Americans look at race. It wasn’t something the president necessarily intended, but social movements like Black Lives Matter have forced him to address the reality of structural racism. This has legitimized the Black Lives Matter movement—even if its adherents are understandably dissatisfied with his tepid approach—and pushed mainstream media to report, analyze, and investigate the myriad threads of racism woven into American society.
Obama’s presidency didn’t start out this way. He campaigned as a post-racial candidate, which he first articulated in his star-making speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He said, “There’s not a Black America and White America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
By glossing over the primacy of race in America, Obama gave a pass to the right’s seething racism. The Tea Party movement spawned just weeks into Obama’s presidency as a White backlash. Its leaders were obsessed with cutting the national debt as cover for slashing social spending, whether “entitlements,” health care, housing, food stamps, or public education. The Tea Party paints itself as race-neutral—“equality of opportunity does not guarantee equality of result” is a favorite catchphrase. But its racial resentment is extreme. Among strong Tea Party supporters, for example, an extraordinary 73 percent believe “blacks would be as well off as whites if they just tried harder.” Among strong opponents of the Tea Party, only 33 percent agree.
Obama validated the Tea Party agenda in seeking a grand bargain with Republicans to reduce the national debt by cutting the bedrock retirement programs of Social Security and Medicare. In fact, that was Obama’s agenda even before the Tea Party existed.
The Black Lives Matter movement is an increasingly nimble and strategic movement.
What first altered the debate was Occupy Wall Street, which flipped the script from austerity to economic inequality. Then Black Lives Matter—which was mothered by raised expectations, digital media, and horrific police killings of Black people—forced Obama to acknowledge that structural racism is real.
The right is furious that Obama haltingly admits African Americans possess “a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” whether disparities under the law or persistent prejudices in everyday life. The combination of peaceful direct action, modest victories in holding police and prosecutors accountable, Obama’s defense of Black Lives Matter, and an opening in the mainstream media to examine the persistence of structural racism in America has chipped away at the power of the police, the right, and White supremacy.
A backlash was inevitable. It has taken forms like the RNC’s cavalcade of hate, phrases like “All Lives Matter,” and the campaign to label Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization. Unfortunately, the reaction has been abetted by the indefensible and horrific killings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge. But the Black Lives Matter movement is an increasingly nimble and strategic movement, if an unwieldy one. Chapters and leaders quickly condemned the police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. More significant, Black Lives Matter pivoted to occupyingthe facilities of police unions in Washington, D.C., and New York City, as these organizations reflexively defend cops who kill, no matter how heinous the act.
This RNC has … raised the stakes for social movements.
For Black Lives Matter to achieve far-reaching changes in America, it’s important to remember there is not an invisible “only” before the phrase. This helps to counter the truly divisive slogans like “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” but it also reminds us that the movement must be multiracial to tear down White supremacy.
It would be easy to dismiss Republican whining that it’s Obama and Black Lives Matter who are divisive, if only because the right is defending a racist social hierarchy. But there is also a kernel of truth here. There is a divide in America between those who want a just system for all, versus those who want a revival of White nationalism. This RNC has clarified that divide and raised the stakes for social movements.
Understanding the impunity with which police kill Black and brown people is the tip of the iceberg. Black lives have to matter in every facet of society, including employment, health care, education, housing, community, food, transportation, and leisure. In this regard, Bernie Sanders was on the right track when he began adding stronger action on policing and mass incarceration to his modest social democratic policy proposals.
What’s needed is a massive redistribution of resources over generations to rebuild Black, brown, and working-class communities so they have the freedom and self-determination so long denied them. It’s a long journey, but Black Lives Matter has already helped America take a few more steps down this road.